Identifying Children as "Mentally Ill"

July 27, 2010 Angela McClanahan

As I consider posts for this blog, I keep asking myself, what do I call our kids? I’ve never been one to adhere strictly to politically correct terms, but I do want a term which accurately identifies our children as a specific subset.

Bob’s “official” diagnoses are early onset bipolar disorder and ADHD. I don’t like to say he’s “bipolar” because I don’t think of him that way—he is not bipolar, he is a kid who has a lot of positive qualities and also has bipolar disorder. That said, I’m lazy. It’s admittedly easier to just say “my kid is bipolar.” Which omits the ADHD part entirely, but “my kid has bipolar disorder and ADHD” just takes too much air for me.

nametag1This blog is not directed solely at parents of bipolar kids, either—regardless of the specific diagnosis, I believe parents of all disabled (differently abled, differently tabled, reasonably stabled, however you prefer to phrase it) children can relate to at least most of what we go through in raising Bob. So rather than address “bipolar kids,” I need a term that encompasses all children with a mental illness.

Easy enough—mentally ill.

Except that sounds…icky. Mentally ill makes me think of kids in hospital gowns (which is sometimes accurate, yes, but hardly paints the whole picture). It implies sickness. I don’t consider my kid sick, necessarily. Are diabetics sick? Not when their condition is controlled. Same here, right? Our kids are perfectly normal and healthy…except when they aren’t.

(Speaking of diabetics—I don’t say my mom is diabetes or my brother is epilepsy. Maybe therein lies the answer—my kid is bipolaric? I don’t even know how that would be pronounced.)

So they’re not ill…except when they are. And they’re not disabled…except when they are. They are, indisputably, different. But referring to them as “different” doesn’t seem specific enough. whoami

I’m out of ideas. For purposes of continuity (and, admittedly, my laziness), I will lump all our different-by-virtue-of-diagnosed-psychiatric-condition children into one category. But since I find the term…icky, I will abbreviate it (“MI”). Because abbreviating it makes it somehow less icky. Sort of.

And if anyone has any suggestions, I welcome them!

“If we can find out what you’re afraid of, we can label it.” –Lucy Van Pelt in “A Charlie Brown Christmas”

APA Reference
McClanahan, A. (2010, July 27). Identifying Children as "Mentally Ill", HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 15 from

Author: Angela McClanahan

July, 27 2010 at 5:22 am

Great blog, Angela. Welcome to HealthyPlace.

July, 29 2010 at 8:18 am

On the contrary there are dozens of books that discribe some useful tips on dealing with an ADHD and Bipolar child. Acceptance is the key if you can't say all that your child is, is like saying it is not real. denial is a very distructive approach to take. I have seen it in my family. It takes time away from you and time is somthing that you never get back. Go toyour local library and look in the 150 section or to a local university and ask the reference libraian to help you. I live this every day and only when everyone is one the same page and accepting the reality and embracing the diagnosis can we work together for success.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Angela McClanahan
July, 29 2010 at 10:36 am

Anne, I agree 100%--acceptance is key and denying a child's (or adult's) diagnosis won't help anyone. My primary point in this post was it's difficult to come up with a generic, all-encompassing term to define our children who have a psychiatric diagnosis. I agree education is imperative for parents who have such a child. Thanks for your comment, and I hope you'll come back to visit this blog!

July, 29 2010 at 8:58 am

My son was diagnoised yesterday and my husband and i don't know what to do next. I was also diagnoised bipolar 4 years ago.
I tell people I have a chemical imbalance in my brain, and I will explain this to my son also because I don't like the word "BIPOLAR".

Amy In WI
July, 31 2010 at 11:23 am

I was diagnosed with depression when I was 16. Now, I am 33 and my current diagnoses is schizo affective biplolar type. I have a daughter who is approaching 15 months, and we are keeping our eyes on her. My husband and I are both "mentally ill". I have been dealing with this a long time, and sometimes the cycles get harder and harder. I find my "bad cycles" make it very hard to be there and care for my daughter. My Mom found this website, and I think it will be a great tool in helping me realise I am not alone. And if my dear Ella ends up having a diagnosis too, it will be nice to know I/we are not alone. Thank you for starting this up!

August, 3 2010 at 2:25 am

What's scary is that a lot of the stigma and reluctance to be accepting can come from the child's own family members.....

July, 19 2014 at 5:51 pm

I agree with the terminology issue - "mental illness" is icky :) I like psychological disorder. I don't like behavior disorder because it is not just about behavior - there is psychological disorder and biological dysfunction. A mental illness sounds chronic. A psychological disorder seems more neutral, more temporary. I like "emotional problems" even better. You are not always emotional, you don't always have problems. So it allows for the sometimes you are ok and sometimes you aren't. BTW I have "emotional problems" my parents had emotional problems (never treated) and my son has emotional problems. I like to say my emotional problems are caused by having a psychological disorder called Bipolar 2. But, sometimes I say they are caused by my husband ;) Usually this means my symptoms are getting worse. He has his quirks but he is generally a good guy.

December, 31 2014 at 5:03 am

Hi Angela my name is Samantha I am 23 and I have a 3 year old boy.. I've been going through some of your blog and I have SO many questions. I'm dealing with so many similar things and I found your blog by googling can toddlers be admitted into a psychiatric hospital? If you would be so kind and email me back I would be so greatful I would love to know how Bob was as a toddler.

Leave a reply